Thursday, June 05, 2008

Bountiful’s child brides a thorny problem

You can't blame Attorney General Wally Oppal for struggling with what to do about the polygamous community at Bountiful.
About 1,000 people live in the community near Creston. They're members of a sect that split from the Mormon Church in 1930, about 40 years after it renounced polygamy. They've had a Kootenay outpost since 1946.
Their religious views clash with the values of most Canadians. Men must have multiple wives - at least three, but often many more - to be assured of the highest form of salvation.
The leader/prophet is considered God's anointed, with powers to match. (But then, so is the Pope.)
He is considered divinely ordained to order girls to marry husbands - or take them away and remarry them to someone else. There are strict dress codes and a lot of religious rules.
Polygamy is theoretically against the law in Canada; the sect acknowledges men in Bountiful have more than one wife. Prosecution should be straightforward.
But the Charter of Rights guarantees religious freedom. The courts could decide that protects polygamy.
The law does appear to trample on individual rights. It's a crime in Canada to be in "any kind of conjugal union with more than one person at the same time."
It doesn't have to be marriage. There doesn't have to be any sexual relationship. It's still a crime for three or four people to be in a "conjugal union."
It's hard to see what right the state has to poke into the way people choose to live. Add the issue of religious freedom, and the law looks dubious.
That's been the concern of the province, which has balked at laying polygamy charges.
Oppal has just hired a third outside lawyer to review the possibility of laying charges. The first two suggested asking the courts for an advance ruling on the charter issues.
Oppal appears to want a special prosecutor ready to take a chance on a polygamy charges.
While polygamy in the abstract raises issues of religious freedom, the reality is grimmer. Winston Blackmore, the prophet of the Bountiful sect, hands out the brides. He has at least 26, and more than 100 children.
What about the rights of the girls, as young as 15, handed off as brides - sixth or seventh or twentieth wives - to middle-aged men? Do they really consent? What if their husband falls from favour, and they are handed to a new man, like a piece of property?
What happens to the 40 or 50 children sired by a single male?
And, as older men are assigned all the young women, what happens to the "lost boys," the young men who grew up in Bountiful, but have no future?
There is good reason for concern. The sect acknowledges 15-year-old girls have been married off to men three times their age, on Blackmore's orders. (That would be illegal now that age of consent has been raised.)
Are they simply young women who have made an informed choice to embrace the religious beliefs they have been taught since birth? Or brainwashed or coerced victims, forced into having sex with old men against their wills?
Sorting that out is not easy. Bountiful is a closed world. It has its own school - provincially funded - and is cut off, unless Blackmore decides to allow members to speak. There are few witnesses to share their stories.
Research suggests polygamous communities are bad places for children - but so are a lot of other environments.
So what should happen? Ideally, police and prosecutors would establish other reasons to intervene. The Education Ministry could ensure the school has been adhering to the provincial curriculum. The Children and Families Ministry could be alert.
But ultimately, the polygamy law will likely have to be tested. Prosecutors should pick the best case and be prepared to demonstrate that the damage done justifies the legal ban.
And then the courts can balance the competing rights.
Footnote: Texas authorities removed children from a similar compound in April, citing fears of child abuse. But at the end of May, the Texas Supreme Court ruled the child protection authorities had gone too far and ordered them returned. The case indicates the challenges of dealing with closed religious communities.


Anonymous said...


Although you did mention the "Lost Boys", I think not enough has been said about the emotional and mental turmoil of their lives.

Virtual labour-slaves, they mature believing themselves to be inferior in some dreadful way. What does it mean to be a "good" boy in such an environment?? How do they aspire to meaningful careers?

I wish that Wally Oppal's efforts would turn, just a little, toward rescuing those young men and giving them a fair chance at life.


DL said...

So why isn't Wally asking the supreme Court of canada to take a look. Its been done before. He is just blowing smoke and spending our dollars on assorted lawyers. I have always been amazed that their school which should be, but maybe not following the BC curiculum. If not shut down the funding. Any outfit that teaches girls to obey some self proclaimed Prophet to marry some old guy and have lots of kids should be in jail